From 1953 to 1961 the White House was home to President Eisenhower and his family. This was a relatively happy and peaceful time in the US. World War II and the conflict in Korea had ended, the unrest of Vietnam and Civil Rights were not yet upon us. It was a time of prosperity. The Eisenhower White House reflected this, especially at Christmas. It was common practice for the President to host two parties at the holidays. One for the political staff in the West Wing and another for the household staff of the White House. Race practices of the time played a part in the separation. The Eisenhowers were the first to hold a single party. Mrs. Eisenhower supervised the plans the included over 500 guests! Mamie was a Christmas devotee and wanted the day to be special for all. She personally shopped at Washington department stores to purchase gifts and then hand wrapped them herself. This was also to save money. Mrs. Eisenhower took decorating to an all time high for the residence. She had a record (at the time) 27 decorated trees. Holiday music was played in every room and all the columns on the house were wrapped in greens.
1957 Eisenhower Christmas card
The Love of Christmas was not for Mamie alone. President Eisenhower also enjoyed the holiday. Ike was an avid artist and enjoyed creating Christmas cards and prints to be used by the White House. In the eight years they lived there, the Eisenhowers used 38 different artist images for cards and gifts- a record number for any time. The Eisenhower cards serve as a great piece of memorabilia from the time.
The connection between the Eisenhowers and Christmas continues today. The Eisenhower National Historic site located in Gettysburg, PA hosts the annual event “An Eisenhower Christmas”. The National Park Service hosts this annual event each December. Visitors to the home see the house decorated as it would have been during the presidential years in the 50s. The house is open to the public (entrance fees in 2011 were $7.50) and there are regional bus tours organized to visit the home. It was even listed on the Frederick calendar of holiday events this past Christmas. I will definitely be checking it out this December!
We discussed the origins of the National Christmas Tree in our podcast Monday, and I learned that Jeremy has much more experience with the tree lighting ceremonies and the Pathways of Peace. Our discussion inspired me to look into the National Christmas Tree Association. It is their tradition, begun in 1966, that the grand-champion grower would present his/her tree to the President and First Lady for display in the Blue Room. The first was a grower in Wisconsin, but Dan and Bryan Trees (formerly Sundback Trees) of West Virginia, have been selected a record four times! I hope to talk Roger into a field trip to their farm sometime this year.
According to the National Christmas Association, in 1901, the first Christmas tree farm was established in New Jersey by W. V. MacGalliard. When the trees reached maturity eight years later, trees were sold for $1.00 each. (I wonder how much money this is in 2012?) Strangely, in 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt, tried to discourage Americans from choosing live trees because of the potential threat to American forests. Conservationist Gifford Pinchot persuaded the president that, done properly, raising Christmas trees was not harmful.
Teddy Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, started a Christmas Tree farm on his estate in Hyde Park, New York in the 1930’s. He even listed his occupation as “tree farmer.” Some skeptics claim that this was a strategy to create the aura that Roosevelt was gentleman farmer, and, therefore, more electable; however, Christmas tree profits are listed on Roosevelt Library documents, and he planned to continue tree farming in his retirement after the presidency. According to the National Park Service, Roosevelt was “so proud of his Christmas trees that he once sent one to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.”
2011 Gingerbread White House
Creating a structure from gingerbread and other foods is a special
2002 Gingerbread White House
challenge. I tried my hand at this craft for the first time as an adult this past Christmas. Wow! It can become all consuming and very addictive. The attention to every little detail and trying to capture just the right look. The White House staff has been taking part in this type of challenge every year since the White House chef started the tradition under President Carter. For the holidays a special gingerbread house is showcased in the White House State Dining Room. The staff can spend up to five months designing, preparing and creating the masterpiece. The 2011 gingerbread house was a true to life recreation of the Presidential mansion and featured white chocolate and a view of the state dining room. The theme of “Shine, Give, Share” was used to show the countless ways we all can lift up those around us. The houses do not always result in a house that looks like a model miniature of the real thing. Sometimes it is a more fanciful recreation with gum drops and candies. These look more fun to make for sure! There are many sites with pictures of the houses. Check out some of the houses through the years- White House Photos. The official White House website has a very interesting short video on the making of the 2009 White House Gingerbread House.
The 2011 National Christmas Tree
1923 National Community Christmas Tree
The National Tree– Click to hear this week’s podcast.
This week we have been all about the President and anything Christmas that might be associated. We briefly talk about our week of posts and then dive right into the National Christmas Tree. This is THE tree that the President, or his designee, has lit each Christmas since 1923 (brief break 1942-1944 for World War II). We discuss the ornaments, the electric, the set-up, the ceremony, ticket lotteries, and even the trees themselves. You can do your own in-depth research at the tree’s website- The National Tree. If you just want to see some key points there is a simple timeline at National Tree Timeline. We are so into this presidential Christmas information you can expect even more this week!
First White House Ornament- 1981
Each year since 1981 the White House Historical Association has produced and sold the official White House Christmas Ornaments. The ornament program was created to help raise funds for the association and its work for preservation and education of White House History. The 1981 ornament was a simple brass ornament modeled after weather vanes from the colonial period. President and Mrs. Reagan began the tradition of hanging the ornament on the tree in the Blue Room at the White House. The ornaments initially were simple designs made of brass. Over the years the ornaments grew more elaborate, adding color and more intricate patterns and details. All come in an official WHHA box and include a small booklet with the history connected to the theme of that year’s ornament. The ornaments have become must-have items for many collectors.
2011 White House Ornament
The 2011 ornament celebrates the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Christmas was a very important holiday for the Roosevelt family. The President and First Lady insisted the day be focused on family and official business was put aside for the day. The family celebrations included family meals for breakfast and dinner with great sweets and even ice cream for the children. The family always included a carriage or sleigh ride as part of their Christmas day activities. The children found stockings full of treats and larger gifts waiting for them when they awoke. What was different for the Roosevelt family was the lack of a Christmas tree. The President did not have any tress in the WHite House due to his strong conservationist beliefs. The children enjoyed the tree at a nearby aunt’s home most years. His son Archie did rebel a little and put up his own secret tree in his closet one year. Read more about the Roosevelts at the 2011 Ornament Page. The White House ornaments could make the perfect annual gift for someone on your list. You can still purchase a 2011 ornament for your very own for $17.95. If you want to catch-up, all 31 ornaments are available as a set for just $359.95.
As our President’s Day celebration continues, this is a shout out to all dog-lovers. I visited the Newseum this fall, and, more than anything, I was captivated by the First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets. While it appears that no president has had the good sense to own an Australian Shepherd, the Obama family made Bo, their Portuguese Water dog, the center of the White House decorations in 2011. The black and white dog, re-created in marzipan, licorice and marshmallows, felt, and, even garbage bags, guarded almost every room.
Bo assembled from trash bags.
Our friend Gini, who receives only a token photograph of our dogs each Christmas, has something in store for 2012. I can wait to start designing our Blue Christmas (and Peso) replicas!
Lighting of the National Christmas Tree, 12/24/41
Times of war and difficulty do not hold for Christmas. Our Presidents know this better than many. Many Christmases in the 20th century saw the US at war with other nations, our troops fighting or preparing for battle. Christmas 1941 was one of these challenging Christmases. The US had only weeks earlier been attacked by the empire of Japan at Pearl Harbor. Americans all prepared for war. Citizens closely listened to the words from President Roosevelt. His words rallied a nation to service to become what many call the “greatest generation”. Christmas Eve 1941 was a night of inspiring words from our President. FDR made his speech from the south portico of the WHite House following the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. His opening words captured the moment well:
“Fellow workers for freedom: There are many men and women in America- sincere and faithful men and women—who are asking themselves this Christmas:
How can we light our trees? How can we give our gifts? How can we meet and worship with love and with uplifted spirit and heart in a world at war, a world of fighting and suffering and death? How can we pause, even for a day, even for Christmas Day, in our urgent labor of arming a decent humanity against the enemies which beset it? How can we put the world aside, as men and women put the world aside in peaceful years, to rejoice in the birth of Christ? These are natural—inevitable—questions in every part of the world which is resisting the evil thing. And even as we ask these questions, we know the answer. There is another preparation demanded of this Nation beyond and beside the preparation of weapons and materials of war. There is demanded also of us the preparation of our hearts; the arming of our hearts. And when we make ready our hearts for the labor and the suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead, then we observe Christmas Day—with all of its memories and all of its meanings—as we should.”
Roosevelt concluded his remarks and then introduced his surprise guest to share remarks with the American people. Winston Churchill had arrived in Washington just weeks after Pearl Harbor for secret meetings with FDR, code-named “Arcadia”. Today we know the meeting as the First Washington Conference. Churchill was staying at the White House and joined FDR for the tree lighting ceremony. His visit was wildly popular with the Americans, other than Mrs. Roosevelt- she found her guest to be a but much, to say the least! Churchill echoed the ideas shared by the President. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter… Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.” Take a moment and watch the recording from that night- Tree Lighting 1941. It is truly remarkable how the magic of Christmas serves to unite people, families, and even a nation in times of trouble.
Today we kick off our President’s week. All of our posts this week will be related to presidential celebrations, traditions, or trivia
President Cleveland's tree 1895
related to Christmas. What better place to start than with the official White House Christmas Tree? As with most recordings of firsts, there is some questions as to what is the actual first White House Christmas tree. The first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House was President Pierce in 1856. However this tree was put-up for a visiting group of children. The first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House for his family was Benjamin Harrison in 1889. Is this then the first White House tree? If we need some photographic proof the first pictures come from President Cleveland’s White House in 1895.
The tradition of the First Lady decorating the White House tree began with Lou Hoover and the first time it was referred to as the “official” White House Christmas tree. But before that there was a lighting ceremony that started with President Coolidge. You pick when the tradition began. I’m going with 1961. Why then?
The Kennedy's "Nutcracker" themed tree -1961
In 1961 First Lady Jackie Kennedy began a new tradition of decorating the official White House Christmas Tree in a theme. The first theme she selected was the Nutcracker. The official tree is known by its location- the Blue Room Christmas Tree. Yes, it is important to know which of the trees in the White House is the official tree. There are many more trees placed throughout the presidential office/residence. It is not uncommon for there to be more than 20 trees at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The record was set in 2011 when the Obamas had 37 trees! (Sandra- you need 25 more trees to catch up!) This year marked 50 years of themed White House Christmas Trees. There have been lots of traditional themes and some a little more avant-garde. Check out the official list- White House Christmas Tree Themes.
Where does the President get the tree? The official tree is donated by the National
The Reagan's Blue Room Tree- 1981
Christmas Tree Association. It is selected in an annual contest by the member growers. The trees are generally about 20 feet in height. The arrival of this tall tree requires the removal of the chandelier in the Blue Room. North Carolina holds the pride of having the most trees come from their state at 11. The closest White House tree to us here in Frederick was the 2009 that came from Shepherdstown, WV. If you ever have a chance to tour the home at Christmas you definitely should. The White House Christmas tree is a great holiday tradition!